Monday, January 20, 2020

Poetry Monday: These Are The Clouds

These Are The Clouds

These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
The majesty that shuts his burning eye;
The weak lay hand on what the strong has done,
Till that be tumbled that was lifted high
And discord follows upon unison,
And all things at one common level lie.
And therefore, friend, if your great race were run
And these things came, so much the more thereby
Have you made greatness your companion,
Although it be for children that you sigh;
Those are the clouds above the fallen sun,
The majesty that shuts his burning eye.

William Butler Yeats

Yeats' great poem "The Second Coming" seems written for our age, but it is not the only one.  Among the evil perpetrated by our rough beast in the White House are the obsessively jealous efforts to reverse every beneficial act by President Obama, even to the level of proposing to further overturn nutritional guidelines for school children's lunches championed by Michelle Obama, and doing so on her birthday.

 Yet none of these clouds diminish the greatness of the Obama years, while any photograph, soundbite or paragraph that remind us of those years can only reveal the contrast with the current residents.  And it is worth noting on Martin Luther King day that the fact that the Obamas were the first African Americans in the White House does not appear to be irrelevant in motivating this racist regime.

  Also informing our reading of this poem is the shameful specter of the degraded Senate we can expect this week in their refusal to meet constitutional responsibilities in the most justifiable Impeachment of a President in US history. It may or may not be a source of solace that this dark time has its own predecessors.

But there is some solace, for those of us who made companions of this greatness, in the fact that this country did elect Barack Obama as President, twice, and that his accomplishments righted wrongs, benefited people and addressed the problems that threaten the future.

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Wonder (Continued)

I decided to repost this so it can headline the weekend. After their triumph at the college talent show, the Wonders get a semi-professional recording of their song, "That Thing You Do" in the Tom Hanks film of that title (see the first clip here.)  A local talent manager promises to get them airplay, and in this scene, they hear it for the first time on the radio.  This is one of the great joyous scenes in movies, and a particular fantasy for those who have dreamed this dream.  I've had the experience of hearing my record on the radio for the first time but I was alone.  Here it's group joy, as unrestrained as it can get in 1960s Main Street Erie, PA.  Liv Tyler's screams make it all work.  I could watch this clip forever.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Putting Money Where the Crisis Is

The most significant news of the week may not have come out of Washington or Iowa, but in a letter.

The letter was from the head of BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager of nearly $7 billion, to corporate chief executives.  In it he acknowledged the import of what's been happening in Australia, the Arctic and many other places on the planet, and issued a prediction.

"The evidence on climate risk is compelling investors to reassess core assumptions about modern finance," he wrote, explaining that climate change is the top concern that investors raise with BlackRock. "In the near future — and sooner than most anticipate — there will be a significant reallocation of capital."

For one thing, that means an immediate migration of capital away from coal and other fossil fuels to green energy.  Accordingly, BlackRock will "remove companies that generate more than 25% of their revenues from coal production" from the quarter of its portfolios that are actively managed. Further:

BlackRock says it will require additional reporting from the companies it invests in, including disclosure of climate-related risks and plans for operating under the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.

"[W]e will be increasingly disposed to vote against management and board directors when companies are not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures and the business practices and plans underlying them."

As reported by Marketwatch, BlackRock's position is that unlike more familiar but relatively short-lived financial crises, the climate crisis is a truly long-term one.

“And with the impact of sustainability on investment returns increasing, we believe that sustainable investing is the strongest foundation for client portfolios going forward.”

The role of money in addressing the climate crisis has been highlighted in the fiction by Kim Stanley Robinson, beginning with the trilogy later combined for the novel Green Earth.  In those novels, global re-insurance companies were crucial in financing large-scale efforts to address the climate crisis.

Steps like this dramatic and meaningful one are necessary though far from sufficient, and depend on better judgment than most financiers seem to have.  And the scale of the problem may require even more (Robinson for example has apparently come to believe that the climate crisis will not be addressed unless capitalism itself is fundamentally changed.)  But in the onslaught of bad news on climate (like confirmation that the past decade was the hottest on record), this is  noteworthy positive news.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Eventual Candidate

I've seen a number of stories recently about the high anxiety among Democratic voters desperate for a new President.  The times demand a President with the intellect, eloquence, political and governing skills of an FDR or an Obama.  Among those running for the Democratic nomination however, no such candidate is obvious. The 2020 election might be won by a few votes in the right places, as it was 2016. But Democrats crave a home run hitter, an electoral Joe Burrow, a superstar.  None is apparent.

That's the tenor of the stories, particularly about Iowa caucus voters.  There's something wrong with all of the leading candidates.  What if it turns out to be the fatal flaw?

It is frustrating, which is why so many are undecided.  Now that Iowans vote in just a few weeks, the anxiety increases.  The polls are tight, the number of undecideds is high.  It seems likely that many will not decide until the last minute, so for one thing, it matters what happens in the country and in the world in these next several weeks.  But even with that, the outcome may hinge on a thousand last second decisions based on...anything at all.

So it seems like a wide-open contest, at least among the seven candidates on the Iowa debate stage.  And then there are the candidates playing a different game, especially billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who is trying to make his mark in later primaries.

But is that the true state of the race?  Perhaps.  But it may also be all but over.

That's possible especially now because of reaction to Trump's Iran misadventure, which  not only made frighteningly real the dangers of an unhinged chief executive, but redirects attention to the general chaos he engenders.  Suddenly some knowledge and experience in foreign affairs has come to the fore, so it is no big surprise that some recent Iowa polls show Vice-President Joe Biden slightly ahead.

Those particular jitters may subside before the voting but the idea of an experienced, steady hand is outweighing doubts about age and Biden's possible political liabilities.  If Biden wins Iowa, and finishes first or second in New Hampshire, he's very close to the nomination.  He's the only candidate who is doing well over time in all or nearly all the primary states to come.

It's hard to evaluate the latest Bernie Sanders boom, since the Trump people are so much in favor of it, and so skillful in manipulating news and social media (which unfortunately are beginning to merge.) But Bernie does start with a fervent base. He is as ever the wild card.

 Iowa voters are fully capable of producing surprises which would boost other candidates, but Joe Biden has the best chance for an actually definitive win.

Because in the Big Picture, Biden has one current advantage that in the end is insurmountable if he keeps it--he is the only candidate popular with black voters.  He started this process that way, and none of the other candidates have changed the basic situation.

Until another candidate can secure black votes, that candidate will not be nominated.  Party officials understand that a Democratic candidate cannot win without the black vote.  It is not sufficient, but it is necessary.  Big turnouts of black voters are essential in all the key states.

Perhaps a calculation could be made that young voters are more likely to fail to vote than black voters, if they aren't sufficiently enthused by the candidate.  But young white voters showing up to vote are typically unpredictable in any case.  And any candidate who makes the climate crisis a major issue will likely motivate young voters. One would expect that Biden understands this.

The Democrat who wins the nomination will have Barack Obama campaigning beside him.  But that image may powerfully motivate Obama voters who stayed home or switched sides in 2016, if the candidate Obama is standing beside is once again Joe Biden.

I am not taking sides here.  But this is how I see the nominating process at this moment.

Probably the most substantive political article I've read this campaign season was a recent New York Times piece by political data analysts Sean McElwee and Brian F. Schaffner, who studied two groups: Obama voters who switched to Trump in 2016, and Obama voters who didn't vote in 2016.

In 2018 Democratic congressional candidates won back about a third of the millions of Obama voters who stayed home in 2016.  Half are black, 70% are women.  They appeared to be motivated by candidates who campaigned on core Democratic issues, and they were also self-motivated to vote against Trump.

About a fifth of the smaller number of voters who switched to Trump, voted for Democratic congressional candidates in 2018.  This was not primarily because they came to dislike Trump, but because they were drawn by particular issues.  The issues they favored contain some surprises: they want gun control, Medicare for All and for efforts to address the climate crisis, like the Green New Deal.  They are less progressive on immigration, race and gender issues. What they didn't want to hear about were the so-called identity issues.

These surveys strongly suggest that a strong issues-oriented campaign that focuses on the climate crisis, healthcare and gun control as well as economic issues can bring more Democrats to the polls to vote for a Democratic candidate. (The authors also note that the Wesleyan Media Project found that the 2016 Clinton campaign "aired fewer issue-based ads than any other presidential candidate since they started collecting data in 2000." )

This analysis is limited, and certainly doesn't go into the microclimates of the key electoral college states.  But it does suggest the possibility that an effective issues-oriented campaign is more important than a hero candidate.  This doesn't seem intuitively likely, but perhaps it is the key to at least a narrow victory.  Whatever solace that may bring at this point.

One perhaps off-center impression I got from the Iowa debate is this: of the candidates on stage, none is likely to ever run for President again, except if one of them is elected in 2020.  But several of the candidates who have dropped out likely will seriously consider running again.  Many hoped for a generational change election this year.  That doesn't look like it will happen in 2020.  But it will happen next time.  Assuming there is going to be a next time.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Poetry Monday: Clouds

Flying Lesson: Clouds

Focus on the shapes: cirrus, a curl,
stratus, a layer, cumulus, a heap.
Humilis, a small cloud,
cumulus humilis, a fine day to fly.
Incus, the anvil, stay grounded.
Nimbus, rain, be careful,
don’t take off near nimbostratus,
a shapeless layer
of rain, hail, ice, or snow.
Ice weighs on the blades
of your propeller, weighs
on the entering edge
of your wings. Read a cloud,
decode it, a dense, chilly mass
can shift, flood with light.
Watch for clouds closing under you:
the sky opens in a breath,
shuts in a heartbeat.

Dolores Hayden

Poem and photograph (The-clouds-in-a-race-across-the-sky-over-Eagle-Idaho-US.-©-Suzan-Bunting)  from the website of the Cloud Appreciation Society, which features many photos of clouds sent in by members.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

That Thing They Did

Maybe it was all the publicity about Tom Hanks and the Mr. Rogers movie, but I was reminded of the movie he wrote and directed.  He was a big box office star in 1996 when he was allowed to make That Thing You Do, the bittersweet story of the rise and fall of an American Beatles-like band from Erie, PA in the mid-1960s.

  I'm a sucker for movies about bands, especially if the music is special, and this song--the title tune-- certainly is. Every scene featuring it is joyful.  This clip shows the band discovering the song at a college talent show.  The band, newly minted as the "ONEders" (which everyone mispronounces) lost their drummer when he broke his arm.  That's him opening the scene, getting a program for the show.  They persuaded their percussionist friend to play just this one song for just this one gig.  They rehearsed it as they wrote it, as a mid-tempo ballad.  But when he gets on stage he juices the tempo--you can hear the lead singer trying to keep up with the beat at the beginning of the song.  By the bridge he's gotten into it, helped by the enthusiasm of the dancing audience. They win the top prize and get their first paying gig. It's a moment that changes all their lives.

You'll see Liv Tyler, the dark-haired beauty, who at this point is the lead singer's girlfriend.  You'll also see the blond Charlize Theron doing her makeup, indifferent to her drummer boyfriend's music--she's more interested in him as the heir to a local appliance store.  Tom Hanks cast Theron before her first movie had come out, and she's been a Hanks booster ever since--in fact, she introduced him when he received the DeMille Award at the Golden Globes last week.  

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

The Return of Nuclear Fear

one of the infographics prepared by the Obama administration
My chief nuclear fear of the past decade was that people were no longer afraid of nuclear weapons.  None had visibly been exploded for a long time, and any sense of what they are was furnished by video games and Hollywood movies, both of which made nuclear bombs just seem like ordinary if kind of big explosives.

But nuclear fear (a term given its name and history in brilliant books by Spencer C. Weart) had characterized the post-World War II decades, until the collapse of the Soviet Union gave the false sense that the threat was over.  Now nuclear bombs don't usually rate very highly in the hierarchy of anxieties.

That may change, thanks especially to events of this past week.  It was less than a decade ago that the western world was fixated on the threat of Iran getting itself the Bomb.  There was a fair amount of talk in the Bush years of preemptive and inevitably nuclear bombing of suspected sites in Iran.  This was the last time that experts trotted out to delineate the horror of this notion.

Negotiators for the Iran nuclear deal: top officals from China,
Russia, UK, France, Germany, Iran and the US Secretary of State
When President Obama brought together other western governments plus China and Russia to negotiate a treaty with Iran, it was considered an unlikely proposition.  But that treaty was made and signed, and Iran agreed to a series of steps that would ensure that it would not be capable of making a nuclear weapon.  The treaty would be in force until roughly 2030, and of course could be renewed. It was potentially the greatest act for the possibility of peace in the world in a generation.

Many feared that Iran would not abide by the treaty but every indication is that Iran kept to all of its specifications.  Then in yet another act of insane infamy, Trump withdrew American participation.  But the other nations pledged to maintain the agreement, and Iran stayed in compliance.  Obviously everyone hoped the next US leader would return to it.

another Obama admin. infographic
Even before Iran rocket bombed several US bases in retaliation for the assassination by drone of one of their leaders, they announced they were withdrawing from the treaty and would no longer abide by its provisions.  Iran is getting back on the road to a nuclear weapon.

This seems to be the consequence of Trump's solo act that few so far are taking seriously.  No one quite knows what Iran is capable of economically, but if they can accomplish it, it seems they will be back to trying to become a nuclear power, and the world will be back trying to figure out which of its very bad alternatives to take in response.

The US and Iran may or may not continue escalating violent conflict now, but this change in nuclear weapons policy is likely to be permanent.  The reason is simple. Smaller countries like Iran believe that larger countries will be less likely to bully them if they have nuclear weapons, and they are right.  North Korea is the prime recent example.

  Iran has just been bullied by the US, big time.  It has every reason to try to become a nuclear power, especially as it is now clear that the US cannot be trusted to keep its own treaties.

This is an unmitigated disaster for the region and for the world, as if we needed more problems as climate catastrophe spreads and deepens.  Nuclear fear may well return.

That's the Iranian side of the equation.  Perhaps more imminently, there is the fear that Trump will order US forces to use nuclear weapons.  He ordered the assassination without consultation with Congress (or any of its members) or allies, or anybody outside his inner circle of evil.  It had been speculated that the military might refuse his crazy orders.  They didn't.  Would they unleash the nukes at his command?

That's the nuclear fear of the moment.  It seems the only person who can restrain Trump is Putin--and he might well try to restrain him, especially if it involves Iran--if he got the chance.

 After the past week, there are fewer reasons to believe using nuclear weapons is unthinkable any longer in this White House, partly because fewer people--including one person in particular--seem to understand what they are.      

Monday, January 06, 2020

Poetry Monday: Mutability


We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly!--yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest--a dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise--one wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away;

It is the same!--For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free;
Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;
Naught may endure but Mutability.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

A poem I discovered in high school, not in our textbooks but a college literature anthology that had come down from me from my uncle or aunt, through my grandmother and a mysterious trunk in her attic.  It was my favorite, and seems to be relatively obscure. 

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

The Beatle and the Boss

The Beatles meets the Boss when Paul McCartney joins Bruce Springsteen on stage at a huge concert in the UK in 2012.  First they combine on "I Saw Her Standing There" and then merge the two biggest versions of "Twist and Shout."  Note the extra ecstasy the Boss brings to this performance, as he finds himself being a Beatle--every young dreamer's dream of his generation, and more.  So another shot of joy to start the new year.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

R.I.P. 2019

My fix on the contemporary world is slowly slipping.  Merely keeping up with headline stories is not enough--it is insufficient and distorting.  So I confess, for example, that apart from the obviously enormous and growing wealth of the few, I have little purchase on economics.

But I do more or less keep up on the fate of the planet from global heating, species extinction and other tragic destruction of the natural world that sustains all life, including ours.  And there the news in 2019 could hardly be worse.  The insane policies of the current US regime are beginning to take a severe toll on the nation's laws and policies, and perhaps most obviously on the world's will to address the climate emergency, as evidenced by the virtual collapse of the recent UN climate summit.

 Lack of US leadership, or even encouragement in the wrong direction, has emboldened the government of Brazil to allow the cynical burning and cutting down of vast areas of the Amazon rainforest, which is not only causing severe degrading of air quality and other problems in the vicinity, but which adds to the load favoring global doom.  Add this to relentless and expanding effects of melting at both poles, and any chance of saving the future seems more and more remote.

All of this is fueled by global social conflict leading to a growing imbalance in the human response to almost everything. The dark side of human nature is in the ascendancy: greed, hate, systematic and reflexive mendacity, willful ignorance and an almost inexplicable cruelty.

So 2019 was not a good year for the world and many people in it, and a potentially catastrophic year for the future.  Except for important reductions in severe poverty, and what now seems like the distant memory of the Obama years, there's little better to say about the entire decade.

As for those prominent people I knew of but did not necessarily know who died in 2019, when looking at the long list of them, I see my own world slipping away as well.  These were people who populated my life in some way, and as I have waning interest in (or access to) a lot of current culture, they are not being replaced.  This is part of getting old, and realizing it is part of dealing with the change.  But it's also true that the world is changing in ways it hasn't changed in generations--the ways we typically get the news, for example.

When I read some of the names, I recall first my experiences with these individuals, however brief.  James Atlas was a writer, editor and publisher I encountered a few times when we were both young men in Cambridge and Boston in the early 1970s, and had friends in common.  Even then he was working on his biography of the American poet Delmore Schwartz that was nominated for the National Book Award, and complained that Schwartz was invading his dreams.  My most extended memory is of an evening when the two of us detached from a larger group to go bar-hopping, and got gloriously drunk together.

I interviewed architect Cesar Pelli in the 1970s, when he was chiefly a designer of shopping malls (including Greengate Mall in Greensburg.)  He was a key voice in my "Malling of America" article for New Times and subsequent book.  His pronouncement on the mall's effect ("Towns disappear!") was an influential eye-opener at that early stage in my research.  He later became a prominent architect indeed of major urban projects in New York City and around the world. I remember him as gracious and thoughtful. (And in these photos, he looks a lot like James Atlas.)

Wofford accepts the Presidential Citizens Medal from
President Obama in 2013
Harris Wofford was Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor and Industry when I worked on a project highlighting PA Job Centers in the early 1990s.  Our most extended conversation was during a private dinner, when he talked about brokering candidate John Kennedy's call to the jail where Martin Luther King was incarcerated, which may have won him the election, as well as other tales of serving in the JFK administration. He recommended his book on the subject, Of Kennedy and Kings, as now do I.

I also recall that at one of our Job Center inaugural events, Wofford asked everyone not to use the increasingly common jargon of "servicing" people.  We service machines, but we serve people, he said. This respect for language impressed me, as did his urbane and--yes--Kennedyesque manner. Later he was elected to the US Senate as a prohibitive underdog, the first candidate to demonstrate the political potential of running on expanding health care coverage.

Among the musicians of my time who died in 2019 (including Ginger Baker of Cream and Peter Tork of the Monkees) I remember a more obscure one: Leon Redbone.  I saw him perform at a small club in Cambridge, from the front table reserved for music writers. He wore dark glasses and a broad-brimmed hat, and kept his head down so we hardly saw his face, as he played acoustic guitar and sang one old standard after another in his rich baritone. It was the strangest  performance I'd seen to that point.  Still, I got several of his records, and  I always hear "My Blue Heaven" in his voice.

When I met Tom Ellis in the WBZ television newsroom in Boston in the early 70s, a lot of people didn't know what to make of him.  With matinee idol looks and a sometimes uncertain grasp of words, it seems to some he was a model for Mary Tyler Moore's Ted Baxter.  But his newscasts led the ratings by a lot, and he hung in there, learned his craft, and stayed on the air for the next 30 years or so.  For awhile he kept jumping stations for more lucrative contracts, and everywhere he went became the top news station.  He was the only person in Boston ever to anchor number one news broadcasts at all three network affiliates.  After a stint in the Big Town of New York, he returned to Boston to anchor for another 14 years.  I can't say I got much of an impression of him, except that he was not arrogant or manipulative.  He was genial and hugely enjoyed what he was doing.

Speaking of the future, my research for magazine articles in the 70s on the subject brought me in contact with futurists Wendell Bell and Barbara Marx Hubbard.  Hubbard, as heir to the Marx toy fortune, was a kind of godmother to young futurists, kind and careful and probably rightly suspicious, though in a gentle, tentative way.

Others I never met, I remember in their historical moment.  Writer Dan Jenkins and screenwriter Christopher Knopf were making a big noise (as Anthony Hopkins might put it) in the 1970s.  Actors Anna KarinaPeter Fonda, Sue Lyon, Danny Aiello, Valerie Harper, Rip Torn, Peggy Lipton, Carol Channing, Phyllis Newman, Carol Lynley, Michael J. Pollard, Rene Auberjonois, Rutger Hauer, Bruno Ganz and especially--over some 50 years-- actor Albert Finney populated the collective dreams of my era known as movies and television.

 One of my favorite Finney films was Two for the Road with Audrey Hepburn (1967), directed by Stanley Donen, who also died in 2019. Donen had also directed the 1950s classic musicals On the Town and Singin in the Rain (which I've only learned to appreciate years later), the 1957 comedy Kiss Them For Me with Cary Grant (which I discovered on TV); the 1960s caper films Arabesque and Charade, the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore comedy Bedazzled (all of which I saw first run at theatres).  All of them fondly remembered.

The lovely Julie Adams lit up odd movies like Creature From the Black Lagoon and Francis Joins the WACs, but her long career confirms her acting talent and intelligence.  Franco Zeffirelli caught the 1960s youth spirit with his Romeo and Juliet.  Dusan Makavejev made one of the strangest yet most compelling movies of the 1970s with WR: Mysteries of the Organism. 

I had perhaps as many arguments as agreements with Harold Bloom's work, but I honor his reverence for literature.  Ward Just and Larry Heinemann were among the writers first ruminating on the Vietnam War after it was over. Paul Krassner was a provocative and often funny presence in the 1960s.  Ram Dass was his more spiritual counterpart.

Sander Vanocur with RFK
I read Russell Baker's column in the New York Times, and learned the news of the days from television reporters Jack Perkins, Robert Zelnick, Sylvia Chase and Cokie Roberts.  The on-camera reporting of NBC correspondent Sander Vanocur is forever bound with my memories of momentous events in the 60s, especially Robert Kennedy's assassination.  I'll never forget the look on his face during the all night vigil outside the hospital as he reported that the mysterious first name of the accused assassin Sirhan was...Sirhan.  It was a surreal moment that Kurt Vonnegut might have scripted.

And that's the paradox of mourning these deaths: they are so bound to moments of my past, with no likelihood that there would be such presence in my future.  In a sense I lost them long ago.  Their moment is fixed in time forever, yet their definitive passing still seems to depopulate my world.

So I mourn Joe Bellino, possibly the first football star (for Navy) that I recall by name from my youth, and Bob Friend, the oddly colorless ace pitcher for my beloved 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, whose record for the most innings pitched in a Pirate uniform is unlikely to ever be broken.  (Rex Johnston also died this year--I don't recognize his name, but he has the distinction of having played for both the baseball Pirates and the football Steelers.)

Other once-important names float through my journalism days memories--Harold Prince, Eliot Roberts, Robert Evans, Andre Previn... Their accomplishments are recorded, but some fame is fleeting.  Ross Perot was once one of the most important people in the US--he was the first billionaire who ran for President in 1992 as an independent and might have won if he hadn't dropped out and then reentered the race.  He ran again in 1996, and both times got more votes than nearly any other non-R or D candidate. Though he was a Texan,  my hometown of Greensburg, PA bragged that he'd married a local girl, with the wedding in Greensburg itself.  But his death in 2019 was barely noticed, and his name didn't generally make the "notable deaths" lists.

Lee Radziwill
Time stutters on, following its own strange logic. Princess Lee Radziwill died at the age of 85, twenty-five years after the death of her older sister, Jacqueline Kennedy. And almost exactly 60 years after Buddy Holly was lost in a plane crash, his fellow Cricket Jerry Naylor died in 2019.

May they all rest in peace.  Their work and their memory live on.

So with their passing in 2019, my world inevitably and inexorably got smaller.  These figures in the ground of my life leave me in a world of noisy strangers who can't understand me, or perhaps even see me, the Mad Hatter presiding over a phantom tea party, spouting nonsense.  I am left to live and grow and change--quite happily-- among the fixed stars of the past, and above all in the near and present.

  And what's that up ahead?  The first hour of a new year.

Note: In addition to previous posts here on Ric Ocasek and Jonathan Miller, I've posted on writers who died in 2019 at Books in Heat, and on Star Trek and Doctor Who related deaths at Soul of Star Trek.  

Monday, December 30, 2019

R.I.P. 2019: Jonathan Miller

Of all the people I didn't know who died in 2019, I was most saddened by the death of Jonathan Miller.  He was an important presence at various times in my life.

 When I was in college in the 1960s, one of my teachers (Douglas Wilson) mentioned this comedic satire by four young Englishmen called Beyond the Fringe. I soon acquired the album from their Broadway show, and pretty much memorized many of the bits.  In many ways it was life-changing, and certainly influenced my creative life for a long time.

The four members of Beyond the Fringe--Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Arnold Bennett and Jonathan Miller--were the Beatles of comedy.  Without Beyond the Fringe there would have been no Monty Python or Firesign Theatre, or possibly no Douglas Adams and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. 

 But this foursome was an artifical supergroup of funny guys from Oxford and Cambridge assembled by the official Edinburgh Festival to compete with its unofficial fringe festival comedies. After their Broadway success they disbanded, but while Bennett cultivated a career as a playwright, the other three stayed in the public eye throughout the 60s.  Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were the most visible, on British TV and a few Hollywood films (notably Bedazzled.) Miller was studying medicine, but kept get invitations to direct plays, TV shows and movies.

Meanwhile in my life, after intense periods in Boston and Washington I returned to western Pennsylvania in the late 70s.  I was freelancing for magazines and then working on a book, so my life consisted of short bursts of travel and long periods of relative isolation.  My intellectual stimulation came chiefly from reading, and was mostly embodied by precious moments on film and especially on television.

The Body in Question, Miller's series carried in the US on PBS stations about the history of medicine, was one of the programs of the golden age for such stimulating series that included Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, the James Burke programs, Robert Hughes' Art of the New, Ronald Harwood's theatre history All the World's A Stage, and Carl Sagan's Cosmos.  Probably the last were produced by Bill Moyers into the 1990s.  All of these were as important to my mental nourishment, sense of self, and my sanity.

Though Miller stopped formal performing, he was such an engaging talker that he was often featured on American talk shows, which were far more present and far more likely to hold some intellectual interest in the 60s into the 80s than since. In particular, he was given entire hours by Dick Cavett in the 1980s, often several strung together. His marvellous intelligence was inspiring and encouraging as well as stimulating. Miller's talk was absolute sustenance to me in those years.

 While I was aware of Miller as producer and director of several Shakespeare plays for the BBC project of filming all of them, and I'd heard him talk about at least one of them, it was years later in California when I was writing regularly about theatre that I watched tapes of these productions provided by the Humboldt University library.  It was then that I read with great interest his 1986 book Subsequent Performances, about approaching new productions of classic plays. Even more recently I caught up with his provocative 1960s television adaptation--or reimagining--of Alice in Wonderland on DVD.

directing Alice in Wonderland
In these and other ways, Jonathan Miller was a presence in my life over 5 decades, even though I didn't know him, never met him, and never saw on stage a production he directed.  Now, since his death was announced in November, I've been reading about him (including in a 1992 book, A Profile of Jonathan Miller), re-reading Subsequent Performances and watching what I could find on YouTube. There's actually quite alot: many interviews--including the 80s appearances on Cavett and several with Clive James, who died the same month as Miller--and a couple of television dramas he directed.  I've deepened my knowledge of the man and his achievements.

 He brought a fearless originality to his theatrical productions, while at the same time endearing himself to the people he worked with--particularly actors--with his humor, encouragement and respect for their own creativity.  Though he was the victim of clueless criticism, he got good notices as well.  Many of his theatre productions were hits with audiences, and several of his opera productions ran for decades.  Though I probably would not have agreed with some of his interpretations, they were dazzling in their daring and internal consistency.

directing John Cleese in BBC Taming of the Shrew
Though he brought conceptual frameworks to his productions, and coordinated designs (often selecting painters for his designers to see), he felt his contributions as a director were in details--in small moments and gestures by the actors.  His approach was informed by what his novelist mother told him was a function of fiction: to make the negligible considerable, and the forgettable memorable. The job of directing, he felt, was directing attention.

He used his experience as a doctor observing everything about a patient to collect small human gestures which he suggested to his actors.  To the madness of Lear and other characters, he brought medical knowledge of how disorder or old age are expressed in concrete behavior.

Bob Hoskins and Anthony Hopkins in
Miller's BBC-TV Othello
While his interpretations were sometimes controversial, they were always grounded in history and based on a particular logic, about about how people actually behave rather than some metaphorical conceit.

Some changed how many plays are now approached.  For example, after his working class Iago (Bob Hoskins), no production of Othello can ignore the precedent.  He made the racial components of Othello and The Merchant of Venice more realistic by softening the apparent differences, while revealing and sharpening racial divides in The Tempest--also an interpretation no subsequent production can ignore.

He enlivened classics like Hamlet and Lear and several Chekhov plays partly by emphasizing characters that are usually played as minor, such as Claudius in Hamlet. He approached opera as another kind of play, bringing new interest to audiences.

Those who worked with him often mentioned his humor, and the sense of rehearsal as play.  "For me, what is attractive about the stage is contained in the name of what it is we do," he wrote.  "It is a play and is playful."

In A Profile of Jonathan Miller, a notable number of actors and producers name Tyrone Guthrie as Miller’s closest resemblance in directorial style. In addition to his humor, they also mention his warmth with actors, inventiveness and keen eye for behavior. He began productions with a strong sense of time and place, and with a visual style selected, but collaborated closely with designers and actors to produce effects that worked for them, the audience and the show.

Miller’s work in directing opera transformed opera productions down to the present. Robert Brustein claims that Miller’s direction of Robert Lowell’s Old Glory transformed American theatre. “Alot of stage directors...know only about the theatre and not too much about anything else,” observed opera orchestra conductor Kent Nagano. “Jonathan knows about everything.”

In addition to his knowledge and intelligence, Nagano adds, “That’s what he brings into his productions—a sense of everyday life.”

  Miller directed tragedy, and in every play he looked for the irony.Whether or not it is a tragic irony, in the 1980s Miller helped found the UK's Alzheimer's Society and was an  its president for many years, using his skills and presence to bring attention to the previously obscure disease.  In 2019 he himself succumbed to it.  His mother died relatively young of early onset Alzheimer's, but Jonathan Miller, who once said he would be satisfied with living 80 years, made it to 85.

May he rest in peace.  His work lives on.

Poetry Monday: Prejudice Against the Past

The Prejudice Against the Past

Day is the children's friend.
It is Marianna's Swedish cart.
It is that and a very big hat.

Confined by what they see,
Aquiline pedants treat the cart,
As one of the relics of the heart.

They treat the philosopher's hat,
Left thoughtlessly behind,
As one of the relics of the mind...

Of day, then, children make
What aquiline pedants take
For souvenirs of time, lost time,

Adieux, shapes, images--
No, not of day, but of themselves,
Not of perpetual time.

And therefore, aquiline pedants find
The philosopher's hat to be part of the mind,
The Swedish cart to be part of the heart.

Wallace Stevens

Friday, December 27, 2019

RIP 2019: Ric Ocasek

Every late December I post names of people of significant achievement who died during the past year, especially those who don't always make the major media lists.  This time I thought I'd write a little more about a few figures that spark particular memories; whose deaths were more personal to me, even though I didn't know them personally.

When Ric Ocasek died, I was surprised to see that he was a few years older than me.  It wasn't only that he routinely claimed to be much younger, but that he didn't emerge as a rock star until the late 1970s and especially the 1980s, as the lead singer and chief songwriter of The Cars.  By the time the Cars broke up in 1988, Ocasek was 44.

This revelation adds extra delight, for it might be thought that by that time I was past the age of being engaged by pop music.  And there he was, making it.  In fact I was still listening and still making my own music, though I was admittedly in my last years of attending to the latest releases and hits.  My interest dwindled by the mid-1990s, except for following a few favorite artists, like Sting and Paul Simon, as my listening turned to other sources (African, Native American, the off-center work of Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass, etc.) and types (deepening my listening of jazz, pop music of earlier eras, and classical.)  But in the 80s and early 90s--particularly the first decade of MTV--I still kept up, and one of the bands I liked was the Cars.

Despite his exotic looks, Ocasek turns out to have a background I recognize, as he grew up in Baltimore and Cleveland.  He was apparently in Boston at the same time I was in the early and mid 1970s, though I don't recall noticing any of his bands then.  He might have been reading my music stories and reviews in the Boston Phoenix.  When he did break out with the Cars in the late 70s, I recognized his look from the popular J.Geils Band.  We used to see its members around Cambridge a lot.

I read one story on his death in which the writer--a southern California boy--identified the Cars literally with his teenage car culture.  Boston, where the band assembled, didn't really have a car culture.  What I associate with the Cars in my life is the last era in which the parties I went to would almost always include dancing.  I miss those days.

It was the last great pop era of dance, thanks to Michael Jackson and MTV videos. The Cars had that distinct New Age edge--their first albums had an art band feel-- but basically, their hit songs would have passed muster on American Bandstand of the 1950s, when the criteria was "It has a good beat.  You can dance to it."  In fact, it was hard not to dance to a Cars song.

The Cars string of hits was remarkable, and though they made 5 albums in their heyday, their Greatest Hits (first issued in 1985) contains everything I remember.  Some were songs he'd written years before, but once they broke into prominence, Ocasek rose to the occasion and gleefully constructed new sounds from familiar chord progressions and tunes in the pop/rock canon.   He was also capable of poignant ballads such as "Drive," and hybrids like "Heartbreak City," with its undercurrent of sadness.  Its these backbones that keeps these tunes alive, even as the then-cutting edge use of synthesizers can sound dated.

His lyrics however were unique.  He apparently had a background in poetry, particularly of the Beat era (at the band's Hall of Fame induction he named checked Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the now all but forgotten Richard Brautigan), and let his imagination take him through songs that alternately seemed straightforward and dangerously ambiguous.  He could sum up a chronological age and an era in a line like "you think you're in the movies/everything's so deep."

That line is from the Cars most celebrated hit, "You Might Think," immortalized especially by a groundbreaking video--it won MTV's first annual Video of the Year award-- that featured the model Paulina Porizkova, who Ocasek met shooting the video and subsequently married.

Ocasek made solo albums--I remember having one, which I liked--and produced music for a lot of other artists.  The surviving members of the Cars reunited for a performance at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.  Ocasek died in September 2019.  May he rest in peace.  His music lives on.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Boss and Shout

What could be more natural than the sheer exuberance of "Twist and Shout" being revived by the most exuberant live rock artist of his generation, Bruce Springsteen.  Here is a performance before a massive crowd in Brazil, the final concert in the 1988 Amnesty International benefit tour.  You'll see Sting on stage, and catch a glimpse of Peter Gabriel, both of whom were headliners along with the Boss.  Catch this super enthusiastic, super hip crowd as they anticipate the move from "Twist and Shout" to the older song at its root, "La Bamba."  

Monday, December 23, 2019

Poetry Monday/Merry Christmas

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

William Wordsworth
"Ode: Intimations of Immortality
 from Recollections of Early Childhood"

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Joyful Noise

There can't be many songs from the pop/rock canon as purely joyful as the Beatles' "Twist and Shout."  That's the soundtrack to what also may be the most joyful moment in movies (though in HD you can hear some marching band horns were added.) Shot on the streets of Chicago by John Hughes, in Ferris Bueler's Day Off (1986.)  En-joy.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Your Daily Lear: Lewis Carroll

Today's guest author is Lewis Carroll, from his "Melodies," part of Useful and Instructive Poetry (which, as you might have guessed, is a joke.)

There was once a young man of Oporta,
Who daily got shorter and shorter,
  The reason he said
  Was the hod on his head,
Which was filled with the heaviest mortar.

His sister, named Lucy O'Finner,
Grew constantly thinner and thinner;
  The reason was plain,
  She slept out in the rain,
And was never allowed any dinner.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Lights in the Darkness (with Update)

Amanda and Cameron at the impeachment rally in San Jose on Tuesday. 

New York City
San Francisco


Des Moines, Iowa

San Jose CA

Sherman Oaks Galleria, southern CA

Photos from Impeachment demonstrations across the US on Tuesday, captured from San Jose Mercury News online.  Follow the link for all copyrights.

The House of Representatives appears to have more than enough committed votes to impeach Homemade Hitler.  On Tuesday, several Democrats speaking in Congressional session pointed out that the crimes described in the first article of impeachment are ongoing, and that they continue to be a threat to the integrity of the 2020 election.

Also ongoing are other instances of abuse of power, which threaten American democracy with the actions of dictatorship.  What the impeachment hearings have revealed most of all is the willing complicity of other members of the administration, the Republican leaders of the Senate, and the entire Republican party.

The Democrats in Congress had the constitutional responsibility to investigate and impeach.  Millions of Americans added their voices upholding the Constitution and the rule of law by supporting these efforts, including the thousands who marched on Tuesday.

All of this is preliminary to the decisive 2020 elections.  But all of it is necessary. A constitutional democracy requires responsible citizens and officeholders.  In the end, calculations of political consequences are secondary. They cannot be predicted anyway.

Update Wednesday December 17, 2019

The U.S. House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump, on two articles charging him with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, both high crimes against the Constitution of the United States.

In a new development, it is now uncertain when the House will send the articles to the Senate for trial.  In an unprecedented insult to the Constitution and his own oath of office, Senate leader McConnell has announced that he will follow White House direction, and that he in no sense will play an impartial role, with no question as to the outcome of the trial.  Democrats have been denied the right to call witnesses.  Since a fair trial is therefore impossible, the House may deny the Senate the opportunity--or at least the fairly immediate opportunity--to in effect declare Trump acquitted.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Poetry Monday: The Breathing

The Breathing

An absolute
Trees stand
up to their knees in
fog.  The fog
slowly flows uphill.
cobwebs, the grass
leaning where deer
have looked for apples.
The woods
from brook to where
the top of the hill looks
over the fog, send up
not one bird.
So absolute, it is
no other than
happiness itself, a breathing
too quiet to hear.

Denise Levertov

Friday, December 13, 2019

Krugman on Climate and Politics: Origins and Ends

It may seem that the US government's persistent failure to address the climate emergency with the required urgency, and in particular the Republican party's intransigence, is a byproduct of larger political forces.  After all, it is extremely rare to see this threat to the survival of civilization and life on Earth as we know it as the subject of the top story of the day.  At best, it is an afterthought.  So it must be a low priority politically as well as in the real world.

But economist and columnist Paul Krugman sees the Republican response to the climate crisis as central and generative--as how this all started.

There is no one writing today who thinks and writes with such clarity as Krugman, so I can do no better than to quote his most recent column at length.  It begins:

The most terrifying aspect of the U.S. political drama isn’t the revelation that the president has abused his power for personal gain. If you didn’t see that coming from the day Donald Trump was elected, you weren’t paying attention.

No, the real revelation has been the utter depravity of the Republican Party. Essentially every elected or appointed official in that party has chosen to defend Trump by buying into crazy, debunked conspiracy theories. That is, one of America’s two major parties is beyond redemption; given that, it’s hard to see how democracy can long endure, even if Trump is defeated."

Then in two paragraphs, Krugman summarizes the latest data and implications of it that has escaped the big headlines this week (go to the column itself for the relevant links):

However, the scariest reporting I’ve seen recently has been about science, not politics. A new federal report finds that climate change in the Arctic is accelerating, matching what used to be considered worst-case scenarios. And there are indications that Arctic warming may be turning into a self-reinforcing spiral, as the thawing tundra itself releases vast quantities of greenhouse gases.

Catastrophic sea-level rise, heat waves that make major population centers uninhabitable, and more are now looking more likely than not, and sooner rather than later."

He notes that taking action to address the climate crisis "was never going to be easy," but that the chief barrier has been extremist (which has become its mainstream) Republican denial.  He reiterates that this is not a byproduct but historically an origin of current Republican decadence:

"As I’ve written in the past, climate denial was in many ways the crucible for Trumpism. Long before the cries of “fake news,” Republicans were refusing to accept science that contradicted their prejudices. Long before Republicans began attributing every negative development to the machinations of the “deep state,” they were insisting that global warming was a gigantic hoax perpetrated by a vast global cabal of corrupt scientists.

And long before Trump began weaponizing the power of the presidency for political gain, Republicans were using their political power to harass climate scientists and, where possible, criminalize the practice of science itself."

Krugman points out that many of the architects of this extremist strategy have been rewarded with high federal and White House positions and influence.  In addressing why Republicans have gone down this road, he points to the enormous political contribution to the Rs by huge fossil fuel corporations, and to the "halo effect" that accompanies doing something good, like addressing the climate crisis. If that happened, then this might make addressing other problems more popular, but Rs oppose any progressive or liberal programs.  So they must oppose them all, especially one so comprehensive.

But he also admits that:

The truth is that even now I don’t fully understand how things got this bad. But the reality is clear: Modern Republicans are irredeemable, devoid of principle or shame. And there is, as I said, no reason to believe that this will change even if Trump is defeated next year.

Krugman concludes:

The only way that either American democracy or a livable planet can survive is if the Republican Party as it now exists is effectively dismantled and replaced with something better — maybe with a party that has the same name, but completely different values. This may sound like an impossible dream. But it’s the only hope we have.